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Wharton MBA Classes Go Bi-Coastal With Video

February 26, 2013 | Telepresence Options

whartoncisco.jpgInformation Week

Cisco telepresence setup for classroom videoconferencing allows a lecturer at Wharton's main Philadelphia campus to simultaneously teach a class in San Francisco.

There's a classroom in San Francisco designed to make students pay such close attention to the lecturer in front of them that they will forget he isn't really there.

On Monday, Cisco and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania unveiled what they're calling the learning experience of the future, a classroom featuring a large screen that drops down from the ceiling and reaches the floor, combined with video projectors capable of replicating the front of the classroom from a mirror-image auditorium on the other side of the country.

whartonclassroom.jpg

Combined with other displays on the side of the room and in the back, this setup should allow a professor in Wharton's MBA program to teach his class as he normally would, but with his audience split between the school's main campus in Philadelphia and a second campus in San Francisco. A lecturer in either Philadelphia or San Francisco can move naturally around the front of the class and look out to see an audience that includes the students sitting in front of him and the remote students visible on the screens at the back of the classroom, as if they were at another bank of desks.

Cisco panorama.jpg

"You push a button, and then you can just teach your class like you would without telepresence, except with an extra three rows at the back," said Karl Ulrich, vice dean of innovation at Wharton and a professor of operations and innovation management. For the students, "the illusion is created by projecting the instructor approximately life size, as if he was standing in front of you," Ulrich said. To preserve that illusion, instructors need only follow a few basic ground rules like restricting their movement to an area at the front of the class delineated by carpet tiles -- go past the first two tiles, and the camera will cut off your ankles -- but these amount to "minor tweaks in behavior," he said.

The video classroom design was specifically aimed at classroom technology skeptics, said Inder Sidhu, senior VP of strategy and planning for worldwide operations at Cisco. "Professors can sometimes be very finicky, but that's because their greatness is driven off of teaching in a given way. So we had to think through 'how can we be minimally intrusive in the use of this technology,'" he said.

whartonclassroom2.jpg

"The idea we had, going back almost a year ago, was that we could do for education what we've done for meetings," Sidhu said. Cisco telepresence systems designed for corporate meetings aim for a simplicity that allows executives to sit down at a meeting table and conduct a meeting as they normally would, with remote participants interacting almost as if they were at the other end of the table, he said. Part of the secret to the success of those systems is they require "no change in behavior," and the system showcased at Wharton is intended to do the same thing for university lecturers -- who don't normally teach seated at a desk or a meeting table, he said. "We had many, many meetings to plan this, not just with the IT guys but with the regular professors, and what they told us is, this should enhance rather than replace what I do, and it should be non-intrusive."

The use of videoconferencing to link classroom locations is not new, but the use of a floor-to-ceiling projection system in the front of the class is. "To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has done that," Sidhu said.

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